Before an overflow crowd at the Top of the Hill conference center, steps from the nation’s capitol, the Thorium Energy Alliance held its third national conference on May 12. Featuring some familiar figures from the thorium-power community plus some new figures – including at least three international documentary film crews – the conference, known as TEAC3, reflected both the accelerating momentum behind the effort to produce commercial energy from thorium-based reactors and the still-formidable challenges ahead.
While some of the presentations, such as Robert Hargraves’ “Aim High,” a forceful argument that thorium-based nuclear power can ward off global climate change and supply an effectively endless supply of cheap energy – had been seen at previous conferences, TEAC3 included several pieces of news. The most significant was the announcement by Kirk Sorensen, founder of this blog, that he has left his job as chief nuclear technologist at Teledyne Brown to found a company, Flibe Energy, dedicated to building commercial liquid-fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs).
Referring to the tsunami and earthquake that heavily damaged the reactors at the Fukushima, Japan nuclear power station and that have caused many to once again question the safety of nuclear power, Sorensen declared, “A lot of people are thinking that we’ve seen the end of nuclear power. I’ve bet my own future and my family’s future that we are at the beginning of a new thorium age.”
Kirk has not disclosed details of funding for Flibe Energy (which is named for the mixture of lithium fluoride (LiF) and beryllium fluoride (BeF2) that is proposed, in molten-salt form as a coolant for LFTRs), but a Teledyne Brown executive attending the conference said that they are “fully supportive of Flibe Energy” in introductory remarks. Kirk also pointed out that, in addition to (and likely preceding) the product of commercial power, LFTRs offer several other revenue streams: in particular supply radioisotopes for medical applications. The only reactor producing medical radioisotopes in North America is due to shut down in the next three years.
While previous conferences have focused on the theory of thorium power, and on educating a skeptical or ignorant public on the possibilities of a nuclear power industry based around cheap, safe and abundant thorium, this one was focused more on practice: on solving the actual challenges ahead for building thorium power plants.
In that spirit Joe Bonometti, a nuclear engineer, veteran NASA program leader and academic with deep experience running innovative R&D projects in both the public and private sectors, gave a presentation entitled “LFTR Development: Lessons Learned.” The intent was not to lay out a single optimum technology or roadmap, Bonometti said, but to present some guidelines that apply to any effort to develop and build new technologies.
“LFTR is like an architecture class, not a specific design,” Bonometti said.
Following the theory-into-practice theme, Charles S. “Rusty” Holden, founder of Thorenco LLC, did offer a specific design: a 40MW pilot plant that he called “a little LFTR.” Using fissile uranium-235 as a source of ignition neutrons and a mix of thorium tetrafluoride in a beryllium fluoride molten salt, Thorenco’s design includes a deep salt pool with a honeycomb geometry that offers “a superior way to clean and condition the fuel during operations,” Holden said.
Also presenting was Col. Paul Roege, U.S. Army, who delivered the event’s other piece of important news. The Pentagon, Roege said, could be able and willing to offer licensing capability for companies building LFTRs or other forms of innovative nuclear power reactors. Most thorium advocates agree that the NRC is unlikely in the near term to license alternative reactor designs – even ones, like LFTRs, that have been thoroughly proven out in operation. Given the military’s need for clean, modular, transportable energy sources for forward operating bases, the swiftest routes to a license could be through the Army, which has the regulatory authority to approve new reactors for military bases without NRC involvement.
In the traditional licensing process, Roege said, “Innovative reactors are at the end of the line. That obstacle could potentially could be overcome if we pursue military applications.”
That, of course, remains a speculative prospect in itself. As TEAC3 demonstrated, however, thorium power has gained a degree of momentum that could not have been foreseen less than two years ago, when TEAC1 attracted an audience of less than three dozen people.
“When I look back at the first thorium conference, 17 months ago, it’s unbelievable to see how far we’ve come,” commented TEAC founder John Kutsch. “This is happening because it makes good business sense, because it’s important to national security and because it’s the right thing to do for our children.”